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Sir Sean Connery still looking after the welfare of Scottish films

17-Jun-2010 • Actor News

Screen icon and probably the most famous Scotsman alive today, Sir Sean Connery, is due back in Edinburgh this week, to join cinema fans at the Edinburgh International Film Festival for a gala screening of one of his most famous films: The Man Who Would Be King.

The Fountainbridge-born milkman-turned-superstar will attend in his role as the festival's most famous patron. His presence will also be a chance for fans in his home city to wish him birthday greetings – he will be 80 in August - says the Scotsman.

But while we may think we know all there is to know about him, there are facets to Sir Sean's character that only a privileged few ever see.

It's partly down to him, for example, that Edinburgh now has an exciting new movie venue – the Festival Theatre has undergone a £245,000 investment to make it Scotland's largest digital cinema. It's there that the Edinburgh International Film Festival will kick off tonight with a gala opening screening of The Illusionist – an animated movie with the Capital itself as one of its leading stars. And it's there The Man Who Would Be King will be screened on Sunday. "Sean Connery was an early advocate of the conversion of the Festival Theatre for cinema," says the EIFF's former managing director Ginny Atkinson, who has worked directly with the Hollywood star in his role of patron, which he's been for nearly 20 years. "Just having his support can make a huge difference, doors can open.

"He has helped give us something that's not just handy to have, it's created a huge, world-class venue for film and a major asset for the city. His influence has played a major part of it happening."

His public profile – of passionate Scot, movie legend, and, increasingly in recent years, political voice – often overshadows the work he quietly does behind the scenes.

Such as his support for the education trust he launched using his salary from Diamonds are Forever – £1.2 million. Since then, the Scottish International Education Trust (SIET) based in Manor Place, has enabled artists to apply for millions of pounds of funding that has helped them to remain working in Scotland.

In America, he set up the Friends of Scotland charity, to "create, stimulate and sustain an interest in Scotland and its history, traditions and culture". As well as donating to organisations such as ex-servicemen's charity Erskine, the most visible area of its work is the annual Dressed to Kilt event, which showcases tartan and Scottish designers.

It also funds scholarships aiming to foster an interest in Scottish studies and culture. His childhood friend, arts impressario Richard Demarco, says Connery has quietly helped transform the lives of talented young Scots. "SIET exists to help young Scots, whether they are athletes, in business or artists. One of the most important things he did for me was to provide money for young artists and filmmakers to come here from Poland in 1972. He was a hero to them, the ultimate spy, and the impact that visit had on them was immense."

Closer to home, the trust provided vital funds to artist Will McLean, recalls Mr Demarco. "He was working in Fife and considering going to Australia. Through SIET he was awarded a grant that meant he was able to stay and make one of his great works of art (Bard Macintyre's Box] which now hangs in the National Gallery of Scotland."

Former Lord Provost of Edinburgh Eric Milligan has seen another side of the legend's benevolent character. "We were at the Edinburgh Tattoo – he loves the Tattoo, it really pulls at his heartstrings. There was a New Zealand group of Maori lads appearing. They were very excited that James Bond was there," he recalls.

"During the show they used some James Bond music and Sean was really tickled by that. At the reception afterwards, one asked if I'd help get Sean's photograph and he was happy to oblige.

"Then he said to the lad that we were going for a drink and did he want to come. We ended up at the officers' mess at the Castle, the lad couldn't believe what was happening, he was Sean Connery's guest.

"It's the kind of story that lad will dine out on all his life – and it was something that Sean Connery certainly didn't have to do. He did it because that's the kind of person he is."

But it's film and cinema with which Connery's name will always be entwined. And his support of Scottish film runs deep, stresses Ms Atkinson.

"He is very supportive of the Scottish filmmakers. They'd love him to be in their film, but he can't, so he's helpful in other ways. He has a habit of phoning people up unexpectedly and having a bit of a chat about their film. Of course, for them it's a bit of a shock at first. He'll be very helpful, he'll make suggestions and ask them if they've considered this, or that."

While some may have scoffed at his tax exile status, his political views or pounced on highly publicised comments that appeared to condone domestic violence – which Connery argues were taken out of context – others prefer to focus on how he has raised the nation's profile on a global stage.

Says Ms Atkinson: "At one time we wanted to speak to Steven Spielberg, who is very difficult to get a hold of through normal channels. He was able to put us in touch.

"He did the same when we wanted to speak to George Clooney. He didn't know him personally, but he said he'd make sure that he got him for us.

"I think George Clooney was rather taken by the fact that Sean Connery had phoned him. He is a man of action – he gets things done."

From Fountainbridge to the Bahamas via Hollywood, from milkboy to multimillionaire, it's been a remarkable journey spanning 80 years.

But as Richard Demarco points out, from relative rags to immense riches, one key element has remained the same: "He's never really changed. He has stayed true to himself, he says what the thinks, he doesn't suffer fools gladly and he views objectively the world of cinema and celebrity and success.

"And there's no doubt there's a very strong pull towards Scotland for him. The heroic aspect of his nature is that with little opportunities, no likelihood of going to university, of ever being a lawyer or a doctor, he still made the big time.

"He had everything stacked against him, and he still won. He's an iconic figure of the 20th century and there's no-one that could possibly replace him."

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